Knights at the Museum

Eugene S. Gaffney, ’65
Curator Emeritus, Paleontology

The man behind the American Museum of Natural History’s hugely popular dinosaur exhibits is also a world expert on tracing the history of life on Earth through turtles. See the turtle fossil he named in honor of Rutgers’ geology faculty.

  • Gene Gaffney credits Rutgers professors.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    Gene Gaffney says Rutgers geology professors Dick Olsson and Steve Fox set him on the path to paleontology prominence. An unhappy biology major, Gaffney one day wandered into Geological Hall and "saw that the Department of Geology actually had a museum with a mastodon … I left the brand-new biology building in Piscataway for the 100-year-old Geological Museum and never regretted it."

  • Gaffney at New Jersey’s Greensands in 1965.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    Undergraduate fieldwork took Gaffney to New Jersey’s Greensands, a source of important North American fossil finds, such as the dinosaur Hadrosaurus and a Bothremys turtle fossil skull that launched Gaffney’s career. Found by Gaffney in the Rutgers geology collection, the skull was the subject of senior-year research Gaffney conducted with turtle experts at Princeton University and Chicago's Field Museum.

  • Gaffney leads an expedition to Lord Howe Island, Australia.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    By the 1970s, Gaffney had earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and was an established paleontologist, leading six field seasons on Australia's Lord Howe Island with parties of up to 12 people. Gaffney, left, and colleagues were looking for primitive cryptodires—horned terrestrial turtles that represent "an extreme of evolution."

  • The mother Barosaurus is installed in the museum's main rotunda.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    "A painting by one of the dino-artists of a mob of Sauropods being attacked by Allosaurs" was Gaffney's inspiration for the eye-popping Barosaurus exhibit in the museum's main entrance rotunda. "When a new administration came in, they wanted something spectacular in the rotunda, which had always been empty because it was set aside for parties." The exhibit is the world's tallest dinosaur mount.

  • The Barosaurus exhibit is the world's tallest dinosaur mount.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    The Barosaurus exhibit was part of an extensive overhaul of the vertebrate fossil halls, which Gaffney calls "the highlight of my museum career." Resulting in the world's largest exhibit of fossil vertebrates, the renovation helped establish cladistics—grouping organisms by shared features like backbones and braincases—as today's de rigueur approach to studying evolutionary relationships.

  • Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum hosted the Gaffney Turtle Symposium.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    In October 2009, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada, hosted the Gaffney Turtle Symposium to recognize Gaffney's contributions "to the study of fossil turtles by bringing together paleontologists, geologists, and science enthusiasts from around the world." With Gaffney are colleagues from Kansas, New Jersey, and Quebec.

  • Gaffney named Ummulisani rutgersensis in honor of Rutgers.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    Ummulisani rutgersensis is related to the Bothremys fossil Gaffney studied as a senior. In a paper published in 2008, Gaffney says he named the fossil "for Rutgers … in gratitude to the faculty of the Department of Geology, Rutgers College, who from 1961 to 1965 provided the senior author with inspiration, encouragement, and friendship, as well as with an education."

  • Gaffney in his office at the museum.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    Though now retired and a curator emeritus, Gaffney continues to research and publish. Here in his office at the museum, he holds the shell of a Cretaceous side-necked turtle that is related to a New Jersey species. The fossil came from Morocco, which was close to New Jersey during the Cretaceous period, when "North Africa and the eastern United States were separated by a narrower Atlantic Ocean."

  • Gene Gaffney in the American Museum of Natural History Roosevelt Rotunda.
    Knights at the American Museum of Natural History

    Of his memorable Rutgers professors who got him started, Gaffney says, "They were always out there fighting for their students. They were for the students first." Photos 1 and 9 by John Emerson. Images 2, 3, and 7 courtesy Eugene S. Gaffney. Photos 4 and 5 courtesy American Museum of Natural History. Photo 6 courtesy Royal Tyrrell Museum. Photo 8 by Ren Hirayama, courtesy Eugene S. Gaffney.

  • Gene Gaffney credits Rutgers professors.
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  • Gaffney at New Jersey’s Greensands in 1965.
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  • Gaffney leads an expedition to Lord Howe Island, Australia.
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  • The mother Barosaurus is installed in the museum's main rotunda.
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  • The Barosaurus exhibit is the world's tallest dinosaur mount.
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  • Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum hosted the Gaffney Turtle Symposium.
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  • Gaffney named Ummulisani rutgersensis in honor of Rutgers.
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  • Gaffney in his office at the museum.
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  • Gene Gaffney in the American Museum of Natural History Roosevelt Rotunda.
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